The most interesting thing about Johnny Depp’s performance in the new Fantastic Beasts film — arguably the only interesting thing — is that he is actually there to give it in the first place. Two years ago, audiences who saw the first instalment in JK Rowling’s fantasy series were bowled a googly just before the closing credits, when the villain of the piece — a scheming magical enforcer called Percival Graves, played by Colin Farrell — unexpectedly morphed into a platinum-haired and pudgy-faced Depp. The actor’s cameo appearance as Gellert Grindelwald, public enemy number one in the Wizarding World, had been kept secret — but for many of us, the surprise went off with less of a bang than a plop.
Farrell had made a suave and mysterious baddy — the kind whose path through the next four proposed films might make all sorts of intriguing turns. But now the prospect of eight to 10 hours of oddball shtick loomed instead.
What’s more, six months earlier, Depp had been accused of domestic abuse by his now-ex wife, the actress Amber Heard — which he has strenuously denied — and their subsequent divorce had been one of the most bitter in recent Hollywood memory. There had also been whispers of unpredictable behaviour on the set of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film — later extensively fleshed out by crew members — that suggested the now 55-year-old actor’s craft was not as laser-focused as it might have been.
Even at that relatively late stage in mid-2016, Depp could have been easily and quietly Kevin Spaceyed out of the picture. Nothing about the role of Grindelwald — a proto-fascist agitator whipping up anti-muggle sentiment in the Thirties — suggested Depp was the only man who could play him.
Also, no one knew he was actually in it. In a statement, Rowling admitted she and the director David Yates had discussed recasting, but said that based on their understanding of the circumstances, they were “not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”, before adding, a little spikily, that “conscience isn’t governable by committee”.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ film review
In other words, a reckoning had been made at Warner Bros, and had concluded that Depp would remain a viable star and a net asset until 2024 at least.
To a critic who has spent the past eight years watching Depp floundering professionally, while his PR liability rating creeps ever higher — well, that seems like an odd call indeed. There is no mystery around why Depp should want to secure another prominent, and therefore well-paid, recurring role. A legal spat with his former business managers last year shed light on a lavish lifestyle that reportedly cost the actor an average of $2 million (Dh7.34 million) per month, including a wine tab of $30,000 and a lump-sum payment to fire his late friend Hunter S Thompson’s ashes into space from a cannon.
(“It’s insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine, because it was far more,” he clarified in a Rolling Stone interview, in which he also estimated that the cost of Thompson’s extraterrestrial committal at $5 million.) His personal spending was presumably only able to hit such heights thanks to the Pirates franchise, which transformed Depp from Gen X heart-throb to global megastar in 2003. And even last year, the middlingly reviewed fifth outing was able to scare up more than 600 million pounds (Dh2.83 billion) worldwide. But with Disney reportedly sounding out a reboot, Depp’s buccaneering days are likely numbered.
So what else has the present decade yielded? Half-formed vanity projects (The Rum Diary), wacko-goth diminishing returns (Dark Shadows, Alice Through the Looking Glass), glorified cameos (Into the Woods, Lucky Them), corny throwbacks (The Tourist) and outright abominations (Mortdecai). There were also two notable box office bombs, The Lone Ranger and Transcendence, both heavily marketed on Depp’s involvement. Neither is as bad as you’ve heard, but with combined losses of around $300 million, they suggest the public appetite for Depp is conditional on galleons and Jolly Rogers.
Next came an attempt to move back onto the Oscars’ radar with the 2015 true-crime saga Black Mass. But his lead performance as the Boston gangster “Whitey” Bulger was buried under unconvincing and unnecessary prosthetics that left Depp looking as if he was trying to act though a chapati.
Then there was to be a remake of The Invisible Man — part of a proposed “Dark Universe” of films at Universal, in which classic monsters would be revived for the blockbuster age. But after a Tom Cruise-led version of The Mummy failed to excite audiences last summer, the Dark Universe was quietly snuffed out. Another true-crime thriller, City of Lies, in which Depp plays a detective investigating the 1997 murder of the hip-hop star Biggie Smalls, was supposed to be released in September. But it was pulled from schedules and remains in limbo, after the film’s location manager filed a lawsuit alleging Depp had physically assaulted him on set, which Depp denies.
Somehow, Rowling and Warner Bros have reconciled all of the above with making Depp a linchpin of their very expensive new venture — and even at a time when audiences are lining up for familiar characters and worlds rather than stars, that’s a hard gamble to rationalise. Perhaps they are banking on international audiences just not caring that much about Depp’s personal or professional travails. (Even as the Pirates films faded in the West, the last one did gangbusters in China.)
Perhaps there is also a hope that Depp has one more iconic performance in him — the same hope Francis Ford Coppola had when he cast Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now amid much discussion about his capability, and whether he deserved his reported $1 million pay. Like Brando, Depp rose to fame as a natural star with matinee idol appeal that he seemed determined to sabotage — and again like Brando, that tension is partly what makes him so watchable in his run of legendary early work, from Edward Scissorhands in 1990 to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, via What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco. (It took longer for Hollywood to feel at ease around him: his three Oscar nominations came between 2004 and 2008, for the first Pirates film, Finding Neverland and Sweeney Todd.)
The tragedy of Brando is that his self-sabotage succeeded, and after Apocalypse Now there was nothing left of him to watch. As for Depp, it seems unlikely that he is about to give the world his Colonel Kurtz in episodes two to five of something called Fantastic Beasts. But perhaps he will discover a corner of his jungle that remains unscorched.
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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out now in the UAE.